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BI History

The Alan Villiers Memorial Lecture, 2013* for the International Association of Cape Horners was given by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, on the theme of one of the great shipping empires. A former deck officer in BI himself, Sir Robin examined the legacy of BI's founders and leaders.
(*St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford, Nov 13)

The British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd

Between 1850 and 1900 the British Merchant fleet grew from 3 1/2 million tons in 1850 (95% in sailing ships) to 9.3 million tons in 1900, 77% of it in steam ships. In 1900 this represented 45% of all the world's steam vessels. This vast expansion was due to a number of factors. British ship owners were merchants, sometimes following the flag, often leading it, creating trades throughout the world. There were large British technological developments in iron and steel hulled vessels together with successful innovations in marine engines, propulsion systems, hull design and on board and dockside cargo handling equipment. Finally, British political control over much of the earth and its ability and willingness to project power undoubtedly assisted. So whilst the opportunity was there it took merchant adventurers, what we might call to-day, risk takers that created this maritime empire.

William Mackinnon, born in Campeltown, 1823

Typical of the entrepreneurs was William Mackinnon, born in Campbeltown on the Kintyre Peninsular in 1823. He left school at the age of 13 and after an abortive attempt to run a grocers he moved to Glasgow and joined a merchant trading with the east. This commercial training and awareness alerted him to opportunities in India, and, through Campbeltown connections he joined a Robert Mackenzie, also from Campbeltown, in Calcutta in 1846. A formal partnership between these two men was set up in 1847 and the Company of Mackinnon Mackenzie was born. Initially it traded north of Calcutta, but as the business expanded, mainly through the import of British cotton goods. Like all entrepreneurs they were looking for trading opportunities and this lead them into ship owning Efforts to open up a trade with Australia failed and lead to the drowning of Mackenzie when the Aurora was wrecked on Gabo island in 1853. Two other vessels were also lost but despite this, three years later Mackinnon was looking to make further investment in ships, but this time in steamers. In 1856 he obtained the mail contract to operate a service between Calcutta and Rangoon from the Honourable East India Company for which he founded, in Calcutta, the Calcutta and Burmah Steam navigation Co Ltd.

The 1850’s were a time of innovation in merchant shipping. Construction costs of vessels was falling and the compound engine was being introduced into ships providing far greater efficiency and reliability than earlier steam engines. Steam vessels provided a better guarantee of regular schedules than sailing vessels, but it was the introduction of the compound engine that gave them a financial edge.

The benefits to British Shipping of the Government Mail contracts cannot be underestimated. Their value was high, for example in the 1860’s the P&O Mail contract was worth £225,000 pa for the Eastern Mail run. The benefits were of good communication for the Government, and a reliable source of income for the shipowners which, to a considerable extent, subsidised the establishment of shipping companies and trading routes throughout the Empire. In 1872 the Victoria, Australia mail contract was worth £90,000 per annum to P&O, and by the end of the 19th century, the mail service from the UK, to Australasia and the Pacific alone was worth £300,000 per annum.

With the Government mail contract signed Mackinnon bought his first two steamers, the Baltic and the Cape of Good Hope, both screw steamers rigged as Brigs, of 190 feet in length and about 500 tons each. Whilst the company had chartered sailing ships for their growing trade with Australia, a mail run required a reliable timetable, so steamers had to be employed to guarantee regularity. A passenger and cargo trade quickly developed despite interruptions. The Cape of Good Hope was quickly requisitioned in 1857 to carry troops to the Sub Continent to help quell the Indian Mutiny, her first such trip bringing six of ten companies of the 37th Regiment of Foot, later the Royal Hampshire Regiment, from Ceylon to Calcutta, the first reinforcements to arrive. In the midst of the turmoil caused by the mutiny, Mackinnon ordered a new vessel, the Burmah, of 920 tons which reached Calcutta in 1858 as the Mutiny ended. He then bought another vessel from a rival whose attempt to create a trade between Calcutta and Madras had failed. This was the 600 ton Governor Higginson. But Mackinnon’s own attempt to make the Calcutta to Madras trade a commercial enterprise also failed, and the vessel joined the others on the Calcutta to Rangoon Service.

1860 was a bad year for the new Company. The Cape of Good Hope was run down by the aptly named P&O Nemesis, and was lost, and a new vessel, the Calcutta was wrecked on the Irish coast within a few hours of being taken over from her builders. The wreck sold for £12, but Mackinnon had prudently insured her for £17,500 and promptly bought a vessel on the stocks which was named the Rangoon, of 498 tons. But despite these problems the business was expanding and by 1861 had a capital of £200,000, and two new vessels had arrived. The company had also bought a number of hulks for the storage of steam coal, which was still being brought out from the UK in sailing ships.

The Rangoon Mail service was extended down the coast to include Moulmein, through the Mergui Archipelago to Penang, Malacca and Singapore. Rangoon became an important base for the company for some decades, second only to Calcutta. Before the Second World War for example, 20 vessels were employed on 8 different mail and passenger runs to and from the port.

His failed foray into the coastal trade to Madras had not discouraged Mackinnon from the idea of an Indian coastal service. He was running an infrequent service between Bombay and Karachi, but he needed to have some of the costs underwritten if he were to create a service that could connect the small ports around the coast. This could only come from the Government, and in 1862 Mackinnon at last managed to meet with the Governor of the Calcutta Presidency, Sir Bartle Frere, and ask for a subsidy to run vessels from Calcutta around the coast to Karachi. The Viceroy Lord Canning agreed, but the idea was blocked in Bombay until 1963 when Sir Bartle was appointed Governor of Bombay. A new mail contract was soon signed, the Company being obliged to run a mail service twice a month between Bombay and Karachi, and eight times a year up and down the Persian Gulf. These secure subsidies required new vessels with greater speed, and Mackinnon returned to the UK to order new vessels and deal with the organisation of his growing company.

First he registered a new Company in October 1862, the British India Steam Navigation Company Limited in Scotland, and had little difficulty raising £400,000 of Capital, and ordered six new vessels from British yards. This company included the assets of the Calcutta and Burmah S N Co. To put this sum into perspective, the HMS Warrior, built at the same time, cost £377,000. The new vessels varied from the Burmah and Travancore of 1,050 tons and 200 h.p to a small packet of 380 tons and 80 h.p. The Managing Agents for the new company were Messrs Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co, based in Strand Road, Calcutta and this remained the situation until the 1957. The name was quickly shortened to BI, and black funnels with two closely separated white bands were soon a familiar sight.

The reason for the discrepancy in the sizes of these vessels soon became apparent. If Mackinnon was going to establish a coastal trade around the entire coast of the Indian sub continent and Persian Gulf, his larger vessels could operate on the well established runs, but the new and smaller vessels were to be used to develop trade in waters that were not even surveyed. A smaller vessel with less draft could explore her way into coastal towns and villages and approach close inshore to offload or pick up cargo. There was a need for flexibility and as a result between 1856 and 1864, a total of 27 vessels were built or bought, only 7 of these being above 1000 tons.

The new route created a commercial revolution for the sub continent and dozens of small towns along the India coast, such as Vizagapatam, Coconada, Masulipatain, Tuticorin and others, were opened up as a result. Very few had berths or breakwaters, so it was common for cargo and passengers to be handled by Masula boats, pliable craft that came out from the beaches to the vessels at anchor.

The small coasting vessels soon became popularly known as Chatri-ki-Jehaz, or Umbrella ships, along the Indian coast. Any merchant who had a parcel of cargo to be collected stood on an open piece of land and held up his umbrella to attract the attention of the passing ship, which would stop, lower a boat, or wait for a boat to come out, and collect it for onward delivery. Later Flagstaffs were erected to signal the vessels.

This service suited the steam vessels of the time where they could be quickly stopped when necessary. BI built its last steam reciprocating cargo class in the late 1930’s simple because those engines were still more suited for the Indian coastal trade and they had a cheap source of coal.

The dangers of trading along a harbourless coast is well emphasised by the experience of the India on her 27th voyage in November 1865 off Madras. They arrived on the 22nd, and it should be remembered that at that time the port of Madras consisted of an iron pier and open beach. On the 25th November the cable parted in rising winds and the ship left Madras Roads keeping her head to the sea. On the 26th the gale had increased to the point where water was being shipped through the engine room skylights. Water rose over the plates and small coal and ashes began to be washed everywhere. The bilge pumps eventually failed, water continued to rise and the plates, clearly not steel, lifted and began floating about. By 1130 the engines were stopped as it had become impossible to stand and feed the furnaces. All sea cocks were shut and the safety valves eased. The vessel now rolled without power for the next 5 hours before the wind began to ease. Steam was raised on the deck boiler to pump out the engine room. It took a couple of days to clear the engine room and raise steam, but the engines were restarted and the vessel arrived back at Madras on the 29th November.

The Chief Engineer, a Mr McOnie records an account of time and fuel used:-
Lying off Madras with banked fires 68 ½ hours
Under steam in gale 31 hours
Stopped at sea 52 ½ hours
Under way after gale 18 ½ hours
Coal consumed 48 tons
Oil consumed 10 gallons.

As mentioned a Persian Gulf service had commenced in 1862 from Bombay and extended to Basra, calling where trade warranted on the way through the Gulf. This was a part of the alternative mail route from the UK using Mesopotamia rather than Suez. In the early days the main trade was on the Persian side, but this was to change later when oil was discovered on the Arabian Peninsular. Like the Rangoon run, the area was hardly charted and much of the charting and establishments of cones of rock for accurate bearings was done by the early pioneers from the company that were still in use 100 years later. It was not until 1911 that the Government of India took over responsibility from BI for Navigation aids in the Persian Gulf.

The expansion of the trade with the Gulf is shown by the figures for vessels visiting Bushire in modern Iran. In 1871 5000 tons of shipping visited the anchorage, by 1889 the figure had risen to 115,000, by 1911 319,000 tons In 1914 more than 4000 ship visits were made to Persian Ports with a tonnage in excess of two million tons. 75% of these visits was by British vessels with BI the providing the main Gulf service.

Persian officials on the one side and Arabs on the other, there was little law and order and piracy was rife. Persuading Afghans to hand over their weapons when they boarded often lead to trouble. The usual method of discouraging pirate vessels was to pump scalding water over their boats from the engine room, but on one occasion in the 1860’s, when the Cashmere was known to be carrying specie, the pirates boarded, disguised as passengers and rose up at a signal and took over the vessel, killing an engine room rating and wounding the Third Officer. They made off with their booty, but through the actions of the Sheik of Mummerah, the culprits were eventually rounded up and hanged and eventually compensation was received from the Turkish Government. As a result of these actions, it became the custom of every BI ship passing the Sheik’s Palace, near the modern port of Abadan, to fire a cannon in salute.

In Dubai, a regular port of call, where dhows would come out from the creek to bring and take cargo, the agents were informed of the arrival of a BI vessel by a small boy posted on top of a tall date palm. Apart from Basra, all the main ports in the Gulf were anchorages until 1960 when Kuwait and Khorramashahr opened alongside berths, followed two years later by Bahrain.

As the reliability of steam ships created predictable services unaffected by the monsoons, more trading spheres became accessible. Whilst Mackinnon consolidated his existing routes, he was still bent on expansion and in 1865 set up a Dutch flag Company, the Netherlands India Steam Navigation Company, to promote business with the Dutch colony of Batavia, modern Indonesia, and in 1868 he went into partnership with the French shipping Company Messageries Maritime, for a joint service to China. The following year he started transporting Muslim Pilgrims to Jeddah.

In 1869 the Suez Canal was opened, sounding the death knell for sailing ships sailing from Europe to Asia. The famous tea races from China to London ceased and the clipper sailing ships, like the Cutty Sark were shifted onto longer runs where their lesser operating costs made them still competitive, such as the Australian wool and grain trades. This shortened route to India provided great opportunities for Mackinnon which he was not slow to take up.

Initially he was wary of taking on P&O commercially. They had run a service to Port Said, then crossed the isthmus to Suez by caravan where they joined other P&O vessels that carried the passengers and valuable cargoes to their various destination in the East and Australia. P&O was well established, and much of its business was the carriage of passengers from Europe which BI did not visit at that time. Efforts to arrange a partnership so that BI carried passengers from various ports covered by its routes to collection areas to join P&O vessels failed when the latter was not interested.

But BI was already establishing its reputation versus P&O, as Kipling wrote:- "Anyhow, give me freedom and the cockroaches of British India where we dined
on deck...and were lords of all we saw. You know the chain gang regulations
of the P & O: you must approach the Captain standing on your head and with
your feet waving reverently...Again, freedom and the British India for ever
and down with the comforts of a coolie ship and the prices of a palace!"

The maintain his fleet of larger vessels introduced after the opening of the Suez Canal, Mackinnon looked for maintenance services close to his operational area and in 1870 began taking over parts of Mazagon Dock in Bombay to provide shipyard services. Calcutta, although the centre of BI operations, was disadvantaged by being 100 miles up the Hooghly river and Garden Reach Workshops was not built until 1916. To provide coal for the expanding fleet Indian coalfields were bought, ultimately 5, and huge stockpiles built up at strategic points.

Coal is not a clean cargo. In Calcutta it was loaded by hand, usually by women, who carried it up a narrow plank in a basket on their heads and tipped it into the holds which created a great deal of coal dust. Officers, who were expected to be dressed properly, which meant No 10’s, were given a dhobi allowance of Rs 10 per day when loading or discharging this cargo

Although BI had taken over the Indian trooping contact from P&O in 1867 and by 1973 owned 31 vessels, ranging from the 323 ton 1861 built Moulmein to the 1764 ton Patna built in 1871, Mackinnon decided he still did not want an all out trade war at that moment. P&O had been founded in 1835 by Arthur Andersen, a Shetlander, to service a route to Spain and Portugal. He obtained the mail contract to the Iberian Peninsular in 1937 and in 1840 a further Mail contract to Egypt on condition that within 2 years the service would continue on to India. It was a larger, powerful and well established company and the time was not ripe. Nevertheless in 1874, Mackinnon start easing into competition when he started a service from the London, via Suez, Aden, Karachi and to the Gulf. By 1876 he was confident enough of his financial strength to extend this service to Colombo, Madras and Calcutta.

Trooping became an integral part of BI operations from its beginning. Most of its vessels were designed for the carriage of deck passengers so easily adapted to carry soldiers, but from a Government point of view, the availability of vessels at very short notice was invaluable. As a trade off for the Indian Government support for his new routes, Mackinnon took on the responsibility for troop movements, thereby saving the Government the costs of maintaining their own troop ships in commission. The Abyssinian campaign of 1867/8 was a typical example when 9 BI vessels were taken up for troop transports, each towing a sailing vessel with stores. The BI vessels with their condensers performed a further service as they were able to supply 30,000 gallons a day of drinking water to the army from the anchorage.

Daryl Bates writing ' "The Abyssinian Difficulty" describes Napier's successful
Abyssinian campaign of 1868. As always with wars, costs tended to run away
so that a Parliamentary Select Committee was appointed to investigate
matters. It noted that among the recipients of the excessive charges was
"the well known and highly respectable British India Steam Navigation
Company." No matter what their business ethics may or may not have been, it
seems a pretty remarkable description for a company which had existed only
since 1856 and under that name since 1862 - only six years previously.

Other trooping activities included in 1879 the Zulu War, the Transvaal War of 1881,22 BI vessels for the Egyptian expedition of 1882, and in 1885 when 29 vessels were called up for the first Suakin expedition. Various operations like the Perak Campaign, the Russo-Turkish War, Egypt and the Gordon relief campaign, the expedition to Persia in 1888, the Uganda rising of 1897, the Sudan War of 1898 and the Somaliland expedition of 1901 all called on BI for vessels. 37 were required for the 1901 Boer War and no less than 39 to save the British Legation in Peking during the Boxer rebellion. Between 1899 and 1901 no less than 80 BI ships were used for Government service requiring the chartering in of 35 vessels to maintain the coal carrying trade alone. The first convoys taking Indian troops to Europe in WW1 in September 1914 required 18 BI vessels at very short notice, and a month later 24 vessels were required to carry 30,000 soldiers to various destinations as far apart as east Africa, the Persian Gulf, Suez and Europe. In total 109 BI vessels were taken up at one time or another between 1914 and 1918. During this war some 84,000 horses were carried from Australia to India for the Army, an interesting cargo, requiring a lot of attention as I know from personal experience. This continued into the second World War when 77 of the Company’s vessels were required, and the Korean War when just the two specialised troopships were involved.

In peacetime the BI tradition of troop carrying continued right up to the 1960’s when the UK Government eventually decided to replace ships with aircraft and the 6 year old Nevasa was converted to school cruising along with the elderly troopers Dunera and Dilwara and later they were joined by the liner Uganda.

The irregular but frequent use of its vessels for Government services meant that other services were inevitably disturbed, but to keep this to a minimum the BI ships were built so that they could be interchanged between the various routes.

By 1873, 17 years after its foundation, the Company was operating 31 vessels and had 4 new ones of 2500 tons building, a sizeable fleet in those days. In 1880 the Company handbook showed the following regular services:-

1. Calcutta, Chittagong, Akyab and Kyoung Phyoo Fortnightly
2. Calcutta, Akyab and Rangoon Fortnightly
3. Calcutta, Rangoon and Moulmein Weekly
4. Calcutta and Straits via Rangoon and Moulmein Fortnightly
5. Rangoon and Moulmein Monthly
6. Rangoon and Moulmein Weekly
7. Calcutta, Port Blair, Camorta and Rangoon Four Weekly
8. Madras and Rangoon Fortnightly
9. Bombay and Kurrachee Fortnightly
10. Bombay and Persian Gulf via Kurrachee Weekly
11. Aden to Zanzibar and Kilwa  

To manage his growing empire, Mackinnon was always on the lookout for sharp young men to work in his or his agents offices. In 1874, the following letter was sent from the Glasgow office, in 203, West George Street, to one James L Mackay in London, born in Arbroath in 1852, the son of a shipmaster

Dear Sir,
Referring to the conversation which passed between you and our Mr. Peter Mackinnon this morning, we have now to put officially on record the terms on which we are prepared to engage your services as general assistant in the office of our Calcutta firm, Messrs Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co, for a term of three years, viz:
That your salary for the first year shall be (Rs 300) per month, for the second year (Rs 350) and for the third year (Rs 400) per month.

The commencement of your first year will date from the day of your arrival in Calcutta.
It is understood that you will start from Southampton by the Peninsular and Oriental Company’s steamer, leaving that port via Alexandria on the 23rd April. A free passage will be provided for you to Calcutta, and on completion of this engagement you will be entitled to a free passage home unless you should enter into a re-engagement with our Calcutta firm.
We shall be obliged by your notifying to us your acceptance of these conditions.
We remain,
Dear Sir,
Yours faithfully,
W. Mackinnon and Company.

The pay of a Captain at this time was 500 rupees per month.

Mackay accepted and joined the Cathay for the trip out to Alexandria, went by train to Suez and joined the Simla. He described his first class cabin on the latter vessel as having to share with 7 others and that it had two washbasins. There were no punkahs or fans which must have made life unbearable in the Red Sea.

His diary records:-
The heat going down the Red Sea at ten or eleven knots was pretty trying, ut we all survived and reached Bombay up to time. At Bombay I had orders to proceed round the coast to Calcutta in the Burma, a British India Steamer of 1000 tons. We called at 32 ports on the way round

He made rapid progress within the Company and in 1879 was sent, on Mackinnon’s orders, to Bombay to sort out the bankruptcy of the agents there and in Karachi, and take charge of all the operations in western India. He became a partner at this time. We shall hear a lot more of this young man as the story progresses.

Partnerships were not scattered like confetti. Charles Cayzer, born in 1843 the son of a schoolmaster in Limehouse, had joined Mackinnon Mackenzie and in 1876 asked Mackinnon for a partnership. This was refused and he resigned. In 1877 he established with a Captain Irvine, the Cayzer Irvine co, and in 1878 they established the Clan Line. It is said that Cayzer was so annoyed at being refused a partnership by Mackinnon that when he resigned from BI he said that for every funnel with two white bands on it, he would put a rival ship with a funnel with two red bands on it and many years later it almost happened. Interestingly two of his daughters married Admirals, Jellico and Madden. Perhaps Mackinnon can be forgiven for missing out on such an obviously capable young man, but at this time he was back in Scotland, embroiled in the bankruptcy of the City of Glasgow Bank with debts of £6 million due to loans based on poor security. We have seen this same problem recently! Mackinnon had been a Director and shareholder but resigned before the difficulties were apparent. Nevertheless he was sued by the administrators but found not guilty. Amongst his friends in Court when his innocence was announced was Sir Bartle Frere.

But whilst he was opening up new routes to Europe, Mackinnon was not ignoring opportunities close to his base. Trade between Oman and the Gulf with East Africa had been going on for more than a thousand years, and Dhows had used the Monsoons for centuries to voyage between India and the Persian Gulf and Africa. The scramble for Africa had started amongst European powers and Mackinnon could see the opportunities for trade and further profitable business for his shipping line. In 1872, The Sultan of Muscat, Sayyid Barghash, encouraged Sir William Mackinnon to commence a service linking Bombay with Aden and Zanzibar.

Always alert to further potential for trade, Mackinnon was instrumental in setting up the Company of Smith Mackenzie in East Africa to develop business for his ships. The financial strength of the run was strengthened when the Government, in response to the increased activity, gave BI a contract for mails between Aden and Zanzibar, which was renewed in 1889 but with the requirement of an increased average speed from 9 to 11 knots. In 1875 the Company was operating on this run with five vessels and extended the voyages to Kilwa and then down as far as Mozambique in Portuguese East Africa.

It was during this time that Mackinnon became friends with Henry Morton Stanley, when BI returned Livingstone’s body to the UK in 1874. Later, in 1887, Mackinnon laid on a vessel to take Stanley and more than 600 porters around the Cape and up the Congo River to relieve Emin pasha, Gordon’s successor in Khartoum, who had retreated south when further trouble erupted in the Sudan.

In 1881 Mackinnon took further advantage of the Suez Canal by opening up the longest of all mail runs from London to Brisbane in response to a request by Sir Thomas McIlwraith the Prime Minister of Queensland. Macilwraith was a fellow Scot who had emigrated to Australia for the Gold Rush in 1854. Probably a rough diamond, but he and Mackinnon hit it off. Macilwaraith realised that most of the migrants were coming via the Cape of Good Hope and leaving their vessels in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria or New South Wales, and Queensland was getting the riff raff left. He felt a direct service might encourage better immigration to Queensland and forced through a £55,000 annual mail contract which Mackinnon was happy to accept.

Always prepared to innovate and take advantage of developments, in 1881 the second India was the first BI vessel to be fitted with electric lighting, and 1885 saw the first vessel engined with the new triple expansion steam engines. This willingness to try new ideas extended right up to the 1950’s when the Ormara was sent to Glasgow to have a free piston gas turbine engine fitted in place of her steam engines. In fact it did not happen and only one merchant ship, an American liberty ship, was fitted with this machinery which turned out to be unsuccessful.

The Flag followed trade when in 1885, after the Berlin Treaty between the European powers, under which Germany took the territory known as Tanganyika, Mackinnon was instrumental in establishing the Imperial East African Company to promote trade with the interior to the north, but the costs were too much for the Company to bear and in 1893 the British Government took over the responsibility for administering the Uganda and two years later the remaining East African territories, or what we roughly call modern Kenya. All was not lost for Mackinnon however, as it was his vessels of the BI line that benefited most from the growing trade, which continued right through to 1972 when the Company was absorbed into P&O.

Expansion of the East African service was inevitable. In 1890 BI commenced a service between London, Aden, Mombasa and Zanzibar, which was soon extended in 1893 to the Seychelles, Comoro, Mauritius, Reunion to Madagascar and Delgoa Bay, (now Maputo,) in the Portuguese East African territory of Mozambique. Mombasa was chosen as the sea terminal for a railway to be constructed to Nairobi, a task that took 4 years and provided BI with cargoes, both of Indian workers and supplies. If Mackinnon thought he had failed in East Africa, his successors reaped the benefits of his interest and investment.

By the 1890, when 13 new vessels joined the fleet, bringing to 143 vessels bought or built since the foundation of the Company, some standardisation of vessels was beginning to show and classes of similar design were being ordered, each class identified by their names beginning with the same letter, ending in A, and named after towns in India. This custom was to continue for the rest of the Company’s existence apart from some African and Australian names for vessels serving those countries. Although small vessels were built for specialised trades, like two for the carriage of teak from Burma, the average tonnage of new builds was above 4,000 tons and BI had done away with sail completely. The first steam turbine class of 4 vessels joined the fleet in 1904 a year before the Royal Navy built its first turbine powered battleship HMS Dreadnought.

One of the developments that have had a significant bearing on the racial mix in the Malay archipelago, East and South Africa, was the arrival of Indian indentured labour to work in these areas where local labour was not prepared to carry out the hard work involved. BI was quick to get in on this business. The provision of cheap and available deck accommodation was to become a major trading factor and even in the 1960’s there were still 12 vessels operating from India to the Gulf, Straits and Africa, creating communication between the settlers in those countries and bringing labour to work in the oil fields and supporting services in Kuwait, Bahrein, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and the Emirates. Other deck passengers in the 1960’s included Baluchis from Pakistan being taken from Gwadur and Pasni on the Makran coast to Muscat to join the Sultans armed forces in Oman.

The opening of East African was Sir William Mackinnon’s last commercial venture. He died in 1893. He left behind a personal fortune of more than £750,000 and a network of regular shipping services from Japan to Kenya, Australia to Iraq, and although based in India, where BI had created and dominated the coastal trade, his fleet of 88 vessels now ran services to and from the UK. These services were ably supported by agents in every port, Mackinnon Mackenzie in India, Smith Mackenzie in East Africa and a number of agencies that were to become Grey Mackenzie in the Persian Gulf.

Mackinnon’s trusted colleague, James Macalistair Hall temporally took over Chairmanship of the Mercantile empire William Mackinnon had created, until Mackinnon’s nephew Duncan Mackinnon was appointed.

Under new leaders, trained up during Mackinnon’s tenure, expansion continued.
1895 The Company bought a controlling interest in Ceylon Steam Shipping Company
1896 Calcutta to New Zealand service commenced.
1901 Eastern Coal Company formed
1902 Madras to Japan service commenced
1904 India to China service commenced
1907 Calcutta, Rangoon, Japan Service
1912 Bought Apcar Line
1912 Joint control of the Bombay and Persia SN Co, whose main trade was the carriage of pilgrims on the Haj, which later became the Mogul Line.
1913 Archibald Currie & Co bought.

1914 saw the amazing amalgamation of two of the United Kingdom’s largest shipping companies, BI and the P&O through the efforts of BI’s new Chairman elected in 1913, James Lyle MacKay who we remember joined Mackinnon Mackenzie as a young 22 year old trader in 1874. He had moved swiftly through the ranks of the Company, becoming by 1880 effectively the Managing Director of the agencies. Ten years later he became President of the Bengal Chamber of Shipping, a member of the Viceroy’s legislative Council in 1891, and a member of the Council of the Secretary of State for India in 1897. In 1911 he was elevated to the Peerage as Baron Inchcape of Strathnavar in the County of Sutherland. Inchcape was destined to become chairman of both companies in 1914, as we shall see.

This was a huge amalgamation, involving some £15 million of Capital. Although the two companies looked equal on paper, BI was the stronger company financially. At the time P&O was about to seek an increase in its capital in order to allow it to expand. The Chairman of P&O, Sir Thomas Sunderland, was nearing 80 years of age and the question of a successor was becoming urgent. Both Companies appeared strong financially, each had about 700,000 tons of shipping, with BI having 131 vessels to P&O’s 60. BI had capital assets valued at £4.3 million with further assets and reserves valued at £6 million and had recently paid off more than £200,000 of debentures. In 1913 it paid out more than £145,000 in dividends. The two company’s routes were complimentary, BI dominating the Indian Ocean Trades and P&O having a monopoly of the long distance routes from the UK to Asia and Australia. On the 19th May 1914 the P&O board resolved to make an offer for all BI’s ordinary and preferred shares. The plan was to have a combined board of 20 members, which P&O’s 12 directors would dominate, but continue to allow the individual Companies to operate independently under their previous boards. It appears that some within P&O were concerned as to how Lord Inchcape might proceed after the merger, but Sutherland was deaf to such thoughts. Other P&O shareholders felt that the deal favoured the BI shareholders who received £96 for shares valued at £83.

On 27th May 1914, all BI stock was transferred to P&O. But BI remained independent. The reasons may have been the possibility of the Board of Trade objecting to such a large merger and the monopoly it would create, but the other factor was that BI’s £1.6 million debentures would require more money than P&O could put together. It was said at the time that “P&O had acquired the BI, but Lord MacKay had acquired P&O”, and so it was to prove. Effectively Inchcape had backed into P&O and taken it over using his assets in BI. He became the Earl of Inchcape in 1929.

But if the Board of Directors was amalgamated, BI was still managed from Mackinnon Mackenzie’s impressive headquarters on Strand Road in Calcutta and the P&O from Leadenhall Street. The P&O was involved in long distance passengers and mail services, and required larger vessels for this operation. BI, with its web of services around India and to Australia and Japan, needed vessels that could take deck passengers and cargo into smaller ports and anchorages. Each had its own uniform and traditions, and these continued.

Cooperation between the companies progressed. As one example every Tuesday a BI vessel left Rangoon with the English mail and passengers for Calcutta. To avoid delays it carried the Hooghly Pilot aboard and proceeded up river, arriving at Outram Ghat on Thursday afternoon. There the passengers and mail were transferred by boat across the river to Howrah railways station where they boarded the Imperial Indian Mail train. The train crossed the continent to Bombay, arriving at 0800 Saturday morning where the homeward bound P&O liner awaited them. A reverse service also operated.

At the outbreak of War in 1914, BI was the largest single shipping company in the world with some 126 vessels, totalling 570,000 tons. War losses were 25, but the effect of so many vessels being taken up for Government service was the invasion of regular BI runs by our Japanese allies.

With such a large fleet of vessels based in and around India, maintenance was always going to be a major operation. To bring some Company control over the fitting out of their vessels, in 1915 the ship repairing company of Mazagon Dock was formed in Bombay expanding from the earlier maintenance facility, and the following year Garden Reach Workshops opened in Calcutta.

In 1917 the new P&O/BI group acquired the Hain line of 27 vessels, and the same year bought the Nourse Line of 6 vessels trading between India and the West Indies. In 1919 Strick Line was purchased which traded between Europe and the Persian Gulf. The New Zealand Steam Navigation Company, The Union Company of New Zealand, and the Federal Line followed. All these companies continued to operate independently but we can be sure full advantage was taken for the economies of scale to improve profits. Whilst these were a considerable addition to the Group, they did not solve BI’s problems of replacements for losses and vessels worn out from their war effort. A large re-building programme was instituted, and the Company acquired no less than 83 new vessels between 1918 and 1924 including 25 of the war emergency programme standard vessels. By 1922 BI was again the largest shipping Company in the world with 161 vessels of almost one million tons.

Inchcape was nearly lost to the world of shipping in 1921 when he was offered the throne of the recently freed Albania.

His response was short:-

My Dear Sir,
I duly received your letter of the 19th ulto and am sorry I have been so long in replying. It is a great compliment to be offered the Crown of Albania, but it is not in my line
Yours sincerely

1932 Inchcape died, succeeded by Hon Alex Shaw, later Lord Craigmyle, but expansion continued under his short reign and in 1934 Controlling interest was bought in the Asiatic Steam Navigation company. Craigmyle was succeeded in 1938 by Sir William Currie, who was still in place 20 years later.

World Wars are not good for shipping. The tasks these vessels undertook in the second world war alone spanned the whole gamut of support required to wage a major war. Troopships, Hospital ships, RAF Depot ships for flying boats, Accommodation ships, armament, medical and general stores ships, auxiliary anti aircraft ships at Torbruk, Armed boarding vessels, sunken block ship at Scapa Flow, Infantry training assault ships, were all some of the varied tasks the company’s vessels undertook. When a nation is forced to fight in three separate spheres, Atlantic and North Europe, the Mediterranean and the East, plus other lesser campaigns such as the invasion of Madagascar, such operations are dependent on shipping, and it is interesting to speculate how these campaigns could have been undertaken if Britain had not had such a large Merchant Fleet at its disposal.

The British Merchant Navy lost 30,000 men and 2417 vessels in the second world war and BI’s share of this was 1,083 officers and seamen and a total of 51 vessels out of its fleet of 103 at the beginning of the war. The Domala has her place in history as the first merchant ship to be sunk by air attack on the 2nd March 1940. Of the nearly 300 aboard more than 100 were killed, many by being machine gunned as they slaved to lower the life boats. Despite a bomb exploding in the engine room, the vessel was recovered and repaired. The Gairsoppa , one of the war replacement Type B cargo vessels ordered by the British Shipping controller and taken over by BI in 1919 along with 25 sister ships to replace war losses, was sunk on the 16th February 1941 by U 101 off the west coast of Ireland contained the largest cargo of silver ever to have been sunk, 7 million ounces, in 4,700 metres of water. Much of this silver is being recovered at the moment in 2013. Of the crew of 81, only one, the second officer survived. His lifeboat landing in Cornwall 2 weeks after the sinking.

This was another of the infamous occasions when the survivors were machine gunned as they took to the lifeboats as also happened to the BI Nalgara. Perhaps they were luckier than the crew of the Hain Line vessel Behar, a sister to the BI war built fast “C” class, sunk by the Japanese Heavy Cruise Tone in March 1944, when 85 of the crew were beheaded on the cruisers deck. The Chief Engineer of the BI Dumra was taken aboard the Japanese submarine that shelled her and sank her in the Mozambique channel and was never seen again.

The Rohna has the dubious record of being the first vessel to be sunk by a guided missile on the 26th November 1943, which resulted in the heaviest loss of American troops at sea during the war, 1150. The ship had come through an attack of more than 30 aircraft unscathed but then a single aircraft appeared, circled and released what turned out to be a radio controlled unmanned fighter that struck at the aft end of the engine room. 120 of the crew also perished.

Another massive re-building programme was commenced the moment WW2 came to an end, when the fleet had been reduced to 66 ships. 8 of the Government standard cargo ships were bought, but these were rather slow for modern commercial operations. The authorities had thought that ten knot vessels would suit wartime conditions and it took time for it to be appreciated that this slow speed was a liability. In response to the Company’s requirements, four faster “C” Class cargo vessels were built in 1942, capable of 15 knots and 9 more were added in the post war re-building programme. The four “C”s were the only vessels ordered during the war although the Company took delivery of 8 vessels ordered before the war.

BI started taking on Cadets in 1906 and in 1916, an inopportune moment, they decided to standardise the training of these embryonic officers by putting them on a Cadetship. This policy continued between the wars, being discontinued in World War 2 as the risk of losing so many potential officers to one torpedo was considered unjustified. Post World War 2, two of the new “C” class were adapted to be Cadetships. The 39 Cadets replaced the normal Indian deck crew, serving their four year apprenticeship before they were eligible to take their Second Mate’s Certificate and become a certificated watchkeeper. This was excellent officer training and inculcated a feeling for the rhythm of a vessel in commission, together with a knowledge of the Company’s routes, cargoes, navigation and ship maintenance.

The training had another beneficial effect as it bred a loyalty to the Company. In 1953, 71 of 103 qualified Commanders were ex BI cadets. During my 3 years on one of these vessels we were commanded by the redoubtable Captain Ben Rogers DSC, who, as a reservist, had commissioned Loch Fada in 1944 and joined Captain Walkers 2nd Escort Group in which he sank 3 U-Boats and assisted in the destruction of two more. He was the ideal person to train up young men, firm and fair, but with exacting standards. He encouraged me to join the RNR and later, when watchkeeping on HMS Duncan I could still read morse faster than my signal ratings – I just did not know what the odd bits of the alphabet meant!

In addition to new cargo vessels, specialised vessels were built for existing trades where older ships had become worn out. The Gulf service received 4 new “D” Class motor ships, the East African service had two new 12,000 ton deck passenger and cargo ships, the Karanja and Kampala. For the Apcar service, the ageing “T” class were replaced by 3 new “S” class motor ships, larger versions of the “D” class and slowly the surviving “M” class were sold off from the UK to East African service and replaced by the two lovely new liners Kenya and Uganda. Two mini liners were built for the East African coastal trade the Mombasa and Mtwara but this service did not prove as popular as expected and they were sold off. Into the 1950’s when 6 new steam turbine cargo vessels were added, 4 “N’s” and 2 “W’s” capable of 24 knots but usually cruising at 18 and the Nevasa, at 20,000 tons the largest vessel built for BI for the Government Trooping service until 5 tankers were built at the end of that decade.

The partition of India created a huge demand for shipping as Hindus fled the new Pakistan and Muslims the new India in the face of a progressive break down in law and order. The death toll was enormous, a low figure being 200,000 people. To facilitate the movement of refugees 11 BI vessels were involved. There was little organisation or control and conditions were described as far worse than the Singapore and Burma evacuations in 1942. The ships sailed crammed, carrying on occasion 5 times their official passenger certificates, but they managed to convey in total some 200,000 refugees to a place of safety.

The concept of an independent India dated back to Lord Curzon’s time as Viceroy, and Indian Merchants were not slow to see the trading opportunities created by BI and try to take advantage of them. The earliest attempt came from Surati merchant in 1870 and failed, as did many others, but in 1919 a syndicate of Bombay Merchants put together a company, that, after trial and error, became the Scindia Company An agreement was reached with this Company in 1923 which began a sharing of routes, although BI was by far the more powerful partner at that time.

Nor were the Indians the only potential competitors. German and Japanese subsidised companies began to compete before WW1 and BI took them on and commenced trades that competed, which cost the loss of the BI vessel Ikhona to trigger happy Russian gunners on their way to their defeat by the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima. But a list of BI initiatives from 1895 indicates that the Company was far from overawed by foreign Government competition

By this time the effect of the Indian Government’s determination to create opportunities for indigenous shipping were taking effect, and the older vessels, built for the leisurely coastal trade were sold off. One of the first ordinances of the newly independent Indian Government was to restrict foreign owned ships to operating between Indian ports under special licences which were only issued if indigenous shipping was not available. The coastal trade, built up painstakingly by William Mackinnon became closed to BI and the focus moved to trades between India and other countries and the African routes. The effect of Pakistani independence was less felt and BI provided the only passenger link between East and West Pakistan until the 1960’s with one of the 22 knot “A” class deck passenger vessels, the Aronda.

The Rajula built in 1923 as one of three sister ships, was one of the exceptions however as the Indian Merchant Marine did not have many deck passenger vessels. She was still operating the Madras to Straits service at the 12 knots her steam reciprocating engines would allow. The request to replace her with a newer S class was refused by the Indian Government who stated that when the vessel retired the run would be taken over by Indian ships, so the Rajula was given an expensive re-fit in Japan in the early 1960’s to continue for another ten years when she retired aged over 50 years.

Another effect of independence was to prevent BI recruiting its Indian crews from its traditional sources, where families had served with the company for three generations or more. A Serang, the Indian Bosun, would indicate the number of generations by the number of whistle chains around his neck. The Company had recruited crews from the sub continent from its earliest times as it was felt that these people were better able to work in a hot climate and also they did not have to be repatriated back to the UK at the end of their contracts. Under the 1880 Indian Merchant Shipping Act, Indian seamen were entitled to half the pay of his British counterpart. The seamen, known as Lascars were often recruited from Indian fishing villages whilst the engine ratings, known as Agwallahs tended to be Pathans from northern Pakistan. Catering staff came from the Portuguese colony of Goa. All had their own cooks and galleys to provide food that suited their religions. These crews showed great loyalty to the Company and indeed, when India invaded Goa, or India and Pakistan were at war, no trouble was experienced aboard the Companies vessels between the citizens of these warring countries. In future crews had to be drawn from a pool and much of the loyalty of these families would have been lost if it was not claimed that the agents had instructed regular BI seamen to hold their ID cards in a certain recognisable manner! The Indian Government also insisted on a proportion of officers and agency staff being Indian which lead to some excellent officers joining the fleet.

But whilst the Company had lost some of its Indian based routes it was still very active. In this post independence era a Persian Gulf to Australia route was opened in 1948 and a new service was inaugurated between the Persian Gulf and Japan started in 1951. In 1953 the Company’s vessels carried a total of 3,450,000 tons of cargo and 280,000 passengers, mostly in the deck class.

In 1957 the BI board separated from P&O and effectively took over running the whole business from new premises at One Aldgate in London. The Indian offices of Mackinnon Mackenzie ceased to be the Managing Agents, but remained the agents for India and looked after those vessels that were still based on eastern routes. To the officers this was referred to as “The Coast”. The fleet was divided into Home Line and the Coast. Many of the vessels, all built in the UK, never returned, spending their lives trading on the eastern routes. This applied particularly to the deck passenger vessels. Officers signed 2 ½ year contracts for the coast which had the benefits of 20% higher pay and no tax, plus, if we chose to take our wives out to the base ports, we received a generous marriage allowance. It was these generous remunerations that enabled me to build my yacht Suhaili whilst serving on the Bombay based Persian Gulf route in the early 1960’s. In addition at this time the Marine Clubs for BI officers still operated in Calcutta and Bombay, providing meals, accommodation, pianos and a billiard table which was much welcomed by bachelor officers.

By the 1960’s there were still 12 deck passenger vessels in service, based upon the Indian sub continent. Passengers, usually families, booked their berths and then camped on the wooden decks, erecting partitions between each group. Food could be cooked on deck, with primus stoves, always a fire hazard or bought from a number of contract galleys, servicing different religions, called Vishiwallahs. Inevitably there were squabbles between groups which the Officers had to calm, usually by persuasion but sometimes by more forceful means. One learned a lot about different races. The Beduins were always gentlemanly and gave little trouble. Indians and Pakistanis on the whole were no bother. The new Town and City Arabs were always pushing and the Somalis were not allowed aboard at all after an incident when one ran amok and knifed three of the officers before being stunned by a fire extinguisher.

Attempts by Indian shipping to move into the profitable Bombay to Gulf run failed when their two new ships ran out of water early into their first voyage, so the “D”’s continued to operate, but not without incident.

In 1961 the Dara had cleared the anchorage in Dubai due to heavy weather and was returning the next morning when there was an explosion close to the engine room. The fire quickly spread, fuelled by the settling tanks, and the vessel had to be abandoned within 20 minutes leading to the deaths of 238 deck and cabin passengers. The enquiry established that the explosion had been caused by the detonation of land mines which were being smuggled aboard, probably by sympathisers of the rebels in Oman. We had a bomb explode on the Dwarka three months later but in a less vulnerable position, and so it was quickly brought under control. Thereafter there was a series of bombs exploding on all the Gulf run vessels, but fortunately with only limited loss of life including some own goals by the terrorists. The initial reaction was to appoint third officers as security officers, but a brief instruction on how to remove a detonator from plastic explosives from the Royal Engineers in Bahrain was not really the preparation we young officers required, and pretty soon the Company hired in the far more effective ex Colonial Policemen who had started life in the Palestine Police Force. With some of them having experience in separate hot spots as Britain withdrew from Empire, these were Gentlemen with whom you did not tangle!

But this run, now mainly taking Indians and Pakistanis to work in the Arabian oil fields, was slowly being replaced by air transportation and the writing was on the wall for the deck passenger vessels. The Dwarka continued to operate long after her sisters had been sold but ceased her solitary run on the Gulf route in 1982 and was sold for scrap, ending a service that had lasted more than 100 years. Even the Kenya and Uganda were also suffering from the competition of air travel and could not trade profitably on cargo alone and were withdrawn, the Kenya in 1971 and the Uganda being converted to school cruising to join Nevasa and Devonshire, and, of course, being taken up as a Hospital ship in the Falklands War.

But despite losing these trades the Company continued to build for its other services. 27 vessels were constructed between 1956 and 1971, 5 tankers that were transferred to trident Tankers Ltd when this was established as the Tanker arm of P&O in 1963, Nevasa, 4 N’s, 2 W’s, 5 B’s, 4 M’s, 2 A class heavy lift vessels and 2 Z’s in addition to two supply vessels Hebe and Bacchus for a Government bareboat charter.

When the UK Government decided to cancel the Trooping contract, 6 years after contacting the two new troopships, Nevasa was laid up and then converted to school cruises, a business tried in the 1930’s which quickly took on. Bibby Lines Devonshire was purchased, renamed Devonia, and converted for the same purpose. But this was not quite the end of an arrangement with Government that had lasted 100 years because when the 6 logistic ships of the Sir Lancelot Class were built between 1964 and 1968, they were officered and managed by BI for the Ministry of Transport until 1970 when they were transferred to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

In the late 1960’s the American business consultancy McKinsey’s were asked to examine the operations of the whole P&O group, and they recommended that all the various companies should be amalgamated under one Company. Some 200 dry cargo vessels were included in this re-organisation, barely 20 of which were still owned by the group within a couple of years, and the British India Steam Navigation Company finally disappeared despite its profitability and the new vessels designed for its specialised trades. Uganda and Dwarka were the last two vessels of the 478 built or bought since 1856 to have the familiar BI funnel. The Company, established by William Mackinnon 126 years before, which had at its apogee been larger than any other shipping company and had done so much to open up the Indian, Persian Gulf and African coasts for trade, had finally disappeared.

The Company was adapting to developments but the world and shipping was changing. Containers were replacing general cargoes, as ports developed container terminals, passengers were travelling by air, the age of big cruise vessels had yet to arrive. The independence of Colonies and their desire to have their own shipping companies, meant British shipping no longer served those markets. An era had come to an end, but one cannot help wondering whether, had William Mackinnon or James Mackay been alive in the 1960’s, the company might have adapted and survived even if in a different form.

© Robin Knox-Johnston 2013

Robin Knox-Johnston sailed with BI in the 1950s and 60s. He became the first person to sail single handed and non-stop around the world, June 14 1968 to April 22, 1969. Since then he has had many leading roles in the sailing and maritime world, including his own sailing ventures. He was knighted in 1995. Details of his long career and many interests can be read at

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